Protein continues to be one of the most mentioned nutrients regarding vegan diets so I wanted to cover this topic a little more. I have already written a post about where vegans get their protein (hint: protein is in basically everything!), but now I want to delve into more detail about protein in general and the differences between plant and animal protein.
Firstly (and briefly), protein is of course an essential nutrient but the requirement for large amounts of protein have been hugely exaggerated, especially by the fitness movement. The body can actually only process a certain amount of protein, any excess will be stored as fat or passed through the body (and cause issues mentioned later). Carbohydrates (good carbs, not white bread or white pasta) are required in far larger quantities than protein as they are what fuels the body.
The Protein Combining Myth
There is also a myth that plant proteins aren’t as good as animal proteins as they are not “complete”, i.e. they don’t contain all of the essential amino acids. These are known as essential as the body cannot make them itself. Because some plants do not contain all of the essential amino acids, a myth arose about it being necessary to combine plant proteins in a meal in order to get all of them. The truth is most plants contain most of the essential amino acids, and any that are ‘missing’, our body has stores of and recycles them as necessary. It is therefore practically impossible to be deficient in protein (and all the essential amino acids) if eating enough calories on a plant based diet (http://nutritionfacts.org/video/the-protein-combining-myth/).
Differences between animal and plant protein
So apart from the debunked myth that animal proteins are superior as they are “complete”, what else sets apart animal and plant proteins?
- Animal proteins come with saturated fat and cholesterol
Consuming saturated fats promotes LDL cholesterol, so consuming animal protein (which come with animal fats) will therefore increase your levels of LDL cholesterol. You do not need to consume dietary cholesterol as your body makes the amount you require itself. A plant based diet has zero dietary cholesterol intake. Unfortunately there has been some misinformation flying around that sat fats aren’t bad and encouraging people to eat as much butter as they like (mostly funded by the meat and dairy industry). More info here. The truth is sat fats and cholesterol are and always have been linked to cardiovascular disease.
2. Animal proteins also often come with hormones, antibiotics, bacteria, parasites…
This often relates to the conditions we impose on animals whilst rearing them.. crowded together disease and injury are rife and therefore antibiotic use is rife. Disease is also high (just do a quick google search of recalled meat, or people getting sick from diseased meat). Meat is not “clean”. It often contains unseen parasites and bacteria. This is why the guidelines on storing and cooking meat are so strict. Just on a personal level – I used to think I had IBS the amount of times I would get a dodgy tummy. This rarely happens now and I in no way doubt this is because I have removed meat and dairy from my diet.
3. Animal protein promotes cancer
As a child the body produces IGF-1 in order to grow and produce cells. This hormone slows down in adulthood but if levels remain high it continues to promote excessive cell production and growth which can lead to increasing risk of cancer. IGF-1 helps cancer cells metastasise and move into other parts of the body. Animal protein triggers the release of IGF-1. Plant proteins do not and in fact seem to decrease IGF-1. More info.
The China Study (the most comprehensive study of nutrition ever conducted) found that animal protein, especially casein which is the protein in milk is a kay element for promoting cancer. They found they could turn the growth of cancer cells on and off by lowering or raising doses of casein. Cow’s milk really doesn’t belong in the human body!!
The World Health Organisation has also placed red and processed meats on their list of known carcinogens along with cigarettes and alcohol. More info.
4. Plants protect against cancer
As well as not promoting IGF-1, plant proteins have additional benefits which actively protect against cancer. One of these components is phytic acid (or phytates). They protect against iron free radicals (from heme iron found in meat) which are linked to colon cancer. Beans, whole grains and nuts are an excellent source of phytate. More info.
Eating plant protein (which comes in the form of legumes, vegetables, beans, quinoa, nuts, seeds etc) means you get TUNS of other highly beneficial nutrients, some of which specifically help prevent cancer. Eating a diet high in fibre for instance is important in reducing risk of bowel cancer. Vegetables contain a wide variety of vitamins and minerals which boost your immune system.
Cancer is not something that we have to accept as some people get and others are ‘lucky’ and don’t. Diet is HIGHLY linked to cancer and therefore you can make efforts to massively reduce your risks of getting cancer. And it’s not just cancer. Heart disease, obesity, diabetes.. these can all be either prevented, controlled or even sometimes reversed by eating a plant based diet. This isn’t to say modern medicine isn’t important but our reliance on fixing problems once they’re already there (i.e. by using drugs/surgery etc) is undermining the importance of preventative methods such as diet and lifestyle.
The research, data and information is out there (amongst a lot of confusing misinformation!). However, if you do your research, you then give yourself the knowledge to make informed choices about what you put into your body.
5. Plant protein is more sustainable
The energy, land and water requirements for animal protein are much higher than for animal protein.
- Animal protein is responsible for 18% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, 9% of human-induced emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and 37% of emissions of methane (CH4).
- Land requirements for plant protein production are around 1/10th of the land requirements for animal protein.
- Raising animals requires huge amounts of food meaning that a large amount of our plant based agriculture (and fishing!) goes towards creating animal feed. This food would be far more efficiently used if fed directly to humans.
With an increasing human population, climate change, water scarcity and on-going habitat loss (a lot of which is due to clearing land for grazing or to grow animal feed) – an adoption of a plant based or mostly plant based diet will have huge positive impacts for the environment and therefore for human well-being into the future.
6. What does the production of animal protein entail?
Lastly, animal protein cannot be produced without harm and suffering to animals. Animal protein is either meat, dairy or eggs; all of which come from sentient beings with complex emotions and the ability to feel pain. They are viewed by the industry as products and a means to an end (to make money) and therefore their welfare does not come top, no matter what they might like you to think. Given animal protein is unnecessary for the human diet (and potentially harmful as discussed above), and bad for the environment, this suffering is completely unjustified.